Kuchipudi exponent Kuravi Venkata Subrahmanya Prasad on his hopes for his chosen art form.
The Indian classical arts are different from other professions in that it is widely recognised that 40 is a young age for a classical artist. Thus it is not surprising that at 37, Kuchipudi exponent Kuravi Venkata Subrahmanya Prasad is among the younger lot of recipients of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar, the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s youth awards in the performing arts. It should also be noted that the latest round of awards, given away earlier this month and accompanied by performances by the recipients, was for the year 2011 - at which time all of them were two years younger. Such considerations apart, Prasad looks young anyway and gave a sparkling Kuchipudi performance at the festival that concluded recently in New Delhi.
Prasad hails from Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh, the village that according to legend was the birthplace of the art form, and was in the 17th century gifted by the Nawab of Golconda to the practitioners of the art who brought to life stories of the Bhagavatam and other sacred tales. But Prasad does not allow a fossilised form of tradition to shackle his creative ideas. At his performance in New Delhi, his percussion accompaniment included a tabla alongside the mridangam, though the drum of North India is not often seen in Kuchipudi or Bharatanatyam orchestras.
“The instruments made of leather are used in dance performances as per the Natya Shastra of Bharatamuni,” says Prasad, noting that while the mridangam is an instrument widely prevalent in South India, the tabla is as common in the North. Each has a unique nadam, he points out, and the audience can enjoy the effects created by the special qualities of each. That is why he included a tabla, he explains, remarking that he “never crossed the limits of the Natya Shastra.”
Cities like Chennai and Delhi have become targets for artists who wish to get noticed. Having grown up in Kuchipudi village, does he find the city outlook different? “Students in Kuchipudi village come with the aim of learning Kuchipudi, as it is their life,” he says. “Whereas students in big cities spend less time learn it, mostly as a hobby.” He feels that factors such as transportation problems and lack of time are the prime reasons for their lack of practice. “Practice is the fundamental difference between different people. Any learning has no ending,” he points out. “Kuchipudi village is the heaven of Kuchipudi dance and the birthplace of legendary artists, which always gives energy and enthusiasm to the learners.”
He adds that people who achieved the status of legends, such as late Vempati Chinna Satyam and the New Delhi-based Raja and Radha Reddy “are contributing their services devotedly to develop Kuchipudi in various cities.”
Prasad started learning the art at the age of six from Guru Vedantam Radhesyam in Kuchipudi village. He has also learnt from Vedantam Rathaiah Sarma and Pasumarthy Venugopala Krishna Sarma at the Sri Siddhendra Yogi Kalakshetram, besides training in Carnatic music under Pasumarthy Venugopala Krishna Sarma.
On whether it is difficult for a man today to make a successful career as a Kuchipudi artist, or for that matter for a woman, he says, “Official and financial support from the Government is very much essential. If Kuchipudi is taught as a part of primary education, it would be a great encouragement. If scholarships are provided to learners, and pensions to the professionals, it will be more fruitful.” Such initiatives will equally encourage girls to become professionals, he adds. It is important, he feels, “to save Kuchipudi not only in India but also in the whole world.”
Prasad has specialised in female roles in Kuchipudi Yakshagana under the guidance of Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, as part of a special training programme of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. With gender demarcations in the dance arts rapidly vanishing, it is now a rarity to find male dancers taking female roles, although in Kuchipudi this was the regulation, since only Brahmin boys practised the art in the old days.
On female roles he has performed, he enumerates characters including Satyabhama (“Bhama Kalapam”), Chitralekha (“Usha Parinayam”), Leelavati (“Prahalada”), Parvati (“Parvathi Parinayam”) among others. In “Narthanasala” he has played Brihannala, the name the Mahabharata hero Arjuna took when he spent one year as a eunuch. But Prasad has also played a large number of male characters, including Lord Krishna in “Bhama Kalapam”, the title role in “Ayyappa Charitham”, and the sutradhar in traditional as well as new productions.
Performing widely but also teaching — “most of the interested students free of cost at my home regularly” — he says it is through these twin efforts that he would like to make his personal contribution to his hoary art. “Respecting the values of Kuchipudi, to propagate the values of our culture and tradition, I am performing on all kalavedikas (platforms), as well as putting all my efforts to train interested students with the blessings of our parama pujya gurus, Vedantham Radhesyam garu, Vedantham Rathaiah Sarma garu, Pasumarthi Venu Gopala Krishna Sharma garu, Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma garu, Vedantam Ramalinga Sastry garu and beloved colleagues Chintha Ravi Bala Krishna, Vedantam Venkata Chalapathi and Yeleswarapu Srinivasulu.”